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Volunteer activities can increase your sense of fulfillment and enhance your career

By Patricia M. Schnegg
Patricia M. Schnegg is president of the Association.

This President's Page was originally published in the July/August 1999 issue of
Los Angeles Lawyer.

As the new century approaches, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, with more than 22,000 members, stands as the largest local voluntary bar association in the United States. At the time that this Association was established in the nineteenth century, no more than 22,000 attorneys practiced law in the entire country, and the problems and issues that lawyers faced in those days were obviously less varied and complex than those that our Association members face today. Without any question, the legal profession has changed in many respects over the last 100 years. One of the most dramatic of these changes is the transformation of the profession into a business, with the bottom line now dictating every facet of law firm management. 

The Bottom-Line Syndrome 
A traditional business model has been applied to the practice of law in the obvious expectation that it will increase productivity and profits. This is an important consideration that cannot be ignored in these highly competitive times. However, the transformation from profession to business has not occurred without substantial costs to individual lawyers and the profession as a whole. We have become slaves to a syndrome that requires associates to bill an ever-increasing number of hours each year and makes equity partnership an unattainable goal for those lacking rainmaking abilities. 

Even the most seasoned partners are not immune. Individual worth is measured against the size of the book of business that a partner controls. With this imperative dominating the practice of law, is it any wonder that not only young lawyers but experienced attorneys find that their worlds have become little more than a constant shuttle to work and home and work again, with little, if any, time for outside activities? 

The long-term impact of this transformation has yet to be fully appreciated, but there is no doubt that the business of law has brought profound changes to the profession. One significant change is that volunteer work-whether bar-related or for other worthy causes-is not perceived as contributing to the bottom line and therefore is no longer valued by many firms. In most instances, lawyers who involve themselves in volunteer activities do so on their own time with little, if any, encouragement from the firm. In years past, many law firms prided themselves-even competed with each other-on their commitment to community service. Sadly, today only a handful of firms have maintained this tradition. 

The trend away from volunteerism is disturbing. This profession has a history of getting involved and advocating-largely through pro bono activities-for those who are unable to do so for themselves. To a considerable extent, it was the law reform movement of the 1960s that reshaped the legal community. There is no question that the Civil Rights movement, the struggle for women's rights, the crisis of the Vietnam War, the war against poverty, the battle to protect the environment, and other explosive issues of that period produced a new breed of lawyers. 

As these lawyers increased pressure on the system, a revitalized commitment took root to help those less fortunate through activism in the legal system. This was an idealism that inspired every aspect of the profession. Many of the lasting programs initiated by this Association, as well as many of the pro bono organizations that are part of the Los Angeles legal community today-such as Public Counsel, the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, and the California Women's Law Center, to name just a few-are a direct outgrowth of that commitment. 

The Benefits of Volunteerism 
It would be impractical if not imprudent to reject the business considerations that now guide the way law is practiced, but volunteerism should not be a casualty of this change. Many studies show that volunteerism is an important aspect of life and is beneficial not only to personal well-being but also to career goals. In his recent book, The Halo Effect, John Reynolds focuses on the positive aspect of volunteerism and defines the halo effect of the book's title as the unforeseen benefits to one's career that often accrue when an individual reaches out to help others. 

Reynolds relates the stories of many individuals, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties and beyond, all with solid careers (many of them lawyers) who tell of feeling unfulfilled and uninspired. Their chosen careers have not been as promising as they would have liked, and money simply has not been a sufficient reward for accepting ever-increasing billable-hour requirements and unseemly competitive work environments. Each of these individuals, however, enriched themselves through their good works. Through these case studies, Reynolds documents the direct connection between volunteerism, career fulfillment, and eventual career advancement. 

The complaint of feeling unfulfilled with career choices is echoed by young as well as seasoned lawyers and crosses gender and ethnic lines. At a recent meeting of the National Association of Bar Presidents, I learned that bar associations across the country are being called upon by their members to sponsor programs addressing quality-of-life issues and alternatives to the practice of law. These programs are enjoying record attendance as lawyers seek to find a personal sense of fulfillment. Volunteering may not be the answer for all who experience a sense of dissatisfaction, but it just may open the door to a new beginning for many attorneys. 

For some of you, volunteering may represent a rekindling of the spirit of the 1960s, while for others it may be a welcomed opportunity to put your time and talents to new uses, but whatever your motivation, this Association is here for you. You have an open invitation to get involved in any number of the Association's 85 sections and committees and more than 20 public service projects. 

The Association Needs You 
Here are just a few of the opportunities the Association offers to you: the Domestic Violence Legal Services Project, the Barristers AIDS Project, and the Homeless Assistance Project are all looking for volunteers. Mentors are needed for the Bridges to the Future Program, which assists youth who are aging out of the Los Angeles County foster care system, with few if any role models to assist them as they attempt to integrate themselves into mainstream society. 

The Association's various committees include Access to Justice, which focuses on the delivery of legal services to the poor; Minority Representation in the Legal Profession; and Judicial Appointments. A newly established Women's Committee seeks volunteer members who are interested in pursuing such areas as business development, networking, and law firm life. These are just a few examples of the many volunteer opportunities available. 

Each of us must remember that life is about more than just making money, winning the case, closing the deal, or becoming partner. Life is not about what each of us has accumulated at the end of the day; it's about how we live the entire day. Volunteering opens up a whole new dimension in one's life. 

Apart from the charitable aspect of volunteering in bar association activities, there are many other positive benefits: business networking, friendship, and career opportunities. And what better way can you find to demonstrate to your children the value of service than through your own example? This Association is only as strong as its members, and it needs each of you. This message is your call to service. As we enter the next century, we need your energy, enthusiasm, and passion. 

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